NASCAR racing has never been what a sane person would call a "safe sport". Even in it's infancy, when cars were much slower than they are now, drivers jostled each other and cars went off the track or crashed. Now, with today's faster cars and competitive drivers all vying for that coveted first place, accidents are bound to happen. And with the cars moving at speeds in excess of 150 mph, they happen fast. Though NASCAR has always been concerned with safety, it was usually left to the individual drivers and car owners to decide on what they wanted to do as far as safety equipment and vehicle modifications. That changed shortly after February of 2001.
For ten months, starting in the spring of 2000, it seemed a black cloud hung over NASCAR. During this period, NASCAR lost four drivers - Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and the legendary Dale Earnhardt, Sr. All four died of a basilar skull fracture - a severe whip-lash injury to the spine that results in severing the fibrous joint between the occipital and temporal bones. In the wake of the grief and public outcry over Earnhardt and the others' deaths, NASCAR decided that measures needed to be taken to prevent similar accidents in the future. By the fall of 2001, they mandated the use of head-restraint systems and soon after that they began work on designing a "safe car". Called "The Car of Tomorrow" or COT, the newly designed car featured many changes, all intended to either help prevent accidents in the first place or to protect the drivers when the crashes occurred.
Some of the safety features were added before COT came into existence. For example, in 1994 roof flaps were introduced on NASCAR cars. These were implemented to keep cars from flying into the air as they spun down the trap at 195+ mph. The low pressure created by the spin literally sucks the recessed flaps open, keeping the cars on the ground as they spin. The allows the driver to, hopefully, regain control of the car or at least gives the skidding tires a chance to reduce the speed of the impending crash. Restrictor plates were added after Bobby Allison's 1988 accident that not only severely injured him, but endangered the lives of hundreds of spectators. A square piece of aluminum is bolted into place between the carburetor and the intake manifold. Holes in the plate control the amount of both air and fuel allowed to flow into the engine's combustion chamber. This decreases the engine's horsepower, slowing the car by as much as 10 - 15 mph. Though NASCAR claims that restrictor plates are necessary on the super-speedways to help prevent high-speed crashes, many drivers feel that their use causes the cars to "bunch up", leading to multi-car pileups if even one driver has a problem with his car. In spite of the drivers statements restrictor plates are now used at the super-speedways such as Daytona and Talladega. Hood tethers (and later, hood pins) were the result of Dale Earnhardt's hood flying into the stands and injuring spectators after he flipped his car during the 1997 Daytona 500 and "kill switches" on the steering wheel were added as a result of 19 year old Adam Petty's death in 2000. A stuck throttle during a practice run sent him head-first into the wall. Now there are two switches -one to shut down the engine and one to shut off the electrical system.
The goal NASCAR'S "Car of Tomorrow" was a safer car. One of the ways that this was achieved was to create a LESS aerodynamic vehicle. This was done in several ways. The front windshield is more upright. The front bumper was redesigned - instead of cutting through the air, the new "splitter" catches the air. In addition the COT has a larger "spoiler" in the rear to increase the stability of the car. All of these features serve to catch more of the wind, increase drag and slow the car. The newer frame is also shorter and a little wider than the old car, adding stability to the vehicle. The front and rear bumpers are at the same height now, making it less likely for a car coming up from the rear to get his front bumper under the rear bumper of the car in front and cause an accident.
To understand some of the safety features, you need to know a little about how a race car is put together. You can think of a race car as a skeleton made up of steel tubes and covered by a "skin" of thin sheet metal. On the underside of the race cars is a sway bar to help increase the stability of the car in the turns. The front and rear sections of the car (called "clips") are made up of thinner steel tubes than is the center section that contains the driver's "roll cage". In an accident these thinner tubes of the front and rear clip will crumple or collapse, absorbing much of the force of the impact. As the front clip buckles, it's design pushes the engine toward the bottom of the car, keeping it out of the driver's compartment.
Peaking under the hood, you'll see the engine is securely held in position by mesh belts forming a stainless steel web to prevent shifting in the event of a high-speed rollover. Cooling fans, as well as oil coolers, help keep the engine, hydraulic systems and brakes cool during the race and a firewall protects the driver from both the heat from the engine and possible flames. Should the engine get thrown from the car in a crash, there is a check valve to shut off the flow of fuel from the fuel cell. The new exhaust system has been rerouted to help keep the engine's heat from transferring into the cockpit of the car. This reduces the chances of heat-related problems both during and after a race.
Closing the hood, we can take a look at the windshield and outside of the car. The windshield is made of Lexon, the same type of material used on the canopies of jet-fighters and the windows of bullet-proof limos. It is attached to the frame of the car with quick-release clips. Like the windshield, the nylon webbing covering the windows of the race car is quickly and easily released. Intended to keep the driver's arms inside the vehicle in the event of a roll-over or bad crash, the webbing still needs to be able to be removed quickly if necessary. The tires are anchored to the car to help keep them from creating additional hazards in the case of a wreck. The tires on the left (the inside) are often softer, letting the car "lean" to the inside while cornering and making it less likely to skid.
Looking at the center section of the car, you'll see that the steel used in it's construction is thicker than that used in the front and rear clips. The left side, in particular, is more heavily reinforced, with more impact-absorbing materials between the roll-cage and the door panels and a double-frame rail in the driver's side door. The roll cage is a specially constructed steel frame containing the driver's seat. The seats have been moved 4" to the right, closer to the center of the car. NASCAR rules now require that the seat be attached directly to the steel that makes up the roll cage, since many times, this is the only part of the car left intact after a bad accident. Inside of the car you will find an air ventilation system to help keep carbon monoxide from building up. Each car contains not only a fire extinguisher, but foam and flame-suppressing chemicals that can be released into the cockpit by flicking a switch.
Many of the drivers are changing to custom-fitted carbon-fiber seats. These seats conform to the driver's body, wrapping snugly around the driver's shoulders and ribs, providing additional protection in the event of a crash. The driver is held in the seat by either a five or six point harness system - two straps over the shoulders, two straps around the waist and either one or two straps coming up between the drivers legs. The straps are extremely thick and made of padded nylon webbing. Much stronger than the seat-belts we see in our own cars, they hold the driver firmly in his seat, allowing his body to decelerate with the car and spreading the impact of the crash across his entire chest and shoulders rather than having it focused onto a single area.
Behind the cockpit is the car's battery and the fuel cell. The battery is located just behind the driver, in a compartment just in front of the left rear tire. The fuel cell is located at the rear of the car. Encased in a metal box and sealed by a leak-proof gas cap, the flexible bladder is surrounded by a honey-comb type material. The fuel cell is filled with foam to help keep the fuel from sloshing from side to side and to reduce the amount of air in the tank. This not only reduces the chance of an explosion, but allows the foam to absorb some of the explosion should the fuel in the cell actually ignite.
In addition to the improvements in the safety features of the cars themselves, NASCAR has made improvements to the tracks and mandates special driver equipment. Drivers are now required to wear fire suits and special gloves, socks and shoes. All of these are made from either Proban or Nomex to help protect the drivers in case of fire. Helmets, either full-face or open-face, are required and are designed both to absorb the force of the crash and to spread any impact over a greater area of the skull. As mentioned earlier, since shortly after Dale Earnhardt's death the use of a head-restraint system has been mandatory. Tracks are being modified to have SAFER barriers (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) or "soft walls". Though not yet at all tracks, they are designed to absorb much of the impact during a crash.
Prior to each practice and race, the cars undergo a 60 item safety inspection. After each item is checked off on the checklist, a sticker is placed on the car giving it clearance to go onto the track. This safety check is helping NASCAR avert future tragedies by making sure that each car that goes onto the track meets the new safety standards set by NASCAR. In addition, if there is a crash, the so-called "black-box" impact-data recorders allow NASCAR to analize the speed of the car and the force and angle of the impact suffered by car and driver. With this information, NASCAR gains the knowledge to help protect drivers in the future.
After the introduction of the "Car of Tomorrow" for the 2007 racing season, not all drivers liked the way the car drove. They did agree that the car appeared to be safer and that they would eventually get used to the changes in handling. With the improvements in both driver equipment and car safety features, the chances of a driver surviving and even walking away from what used to be a potentially fatal crash has increased. There have been accidents, of course; racing veterans state that Michael McDowell's spectacular crash at Texas Motor Speedway was one of the worst they remember seeing, but McDowell walked away from the crumpled car, pausing to wave to spectators. Due, at least in part, to the newer, safer car that NASCAR designed there have been no deaths during a NASCAR event since Dale Earnhardt's tragic crash seven years ago. By continually researching and updating car safety issues, NASCAR hopes to protect it's most precious asset - the drivers.